UCR Researchers Find Virtual Villages Provide Support and Combat Isolation for Older People Living with HIV

Ceci Partridge & Iqbal Pittalwala

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to increased isolation and mental health challenges for many individuals, researchers at the University of California, Riverside, have designed a groundbreaking solution for older people living with HIV who are experiencing heightened isolation.

The team created a virtual village, an online space that fosters positive connections and provides essential resources for OPLH aged 50 and above, aiming to alleviate the negative effects of social isolation.

Led by Jasmine Lucero López, an undergraduate honors student in the Department of Psychology, the research team discovered that virtual villages can serve as a valuable method to connect vulnerable groups to services and to each other. In a paper published in the Journal of the International AIDS Society, López shared three key lessons learned from the study that can enhance future research in similar concepts.

The first lesson revolves around acknowledging that some older populations may face difficulties in using newer technology. The second lesson emphasizes the significance of interactive social events within the virtual village. The third lesson highlights the importance of recognizing that living with HIV alone may not be sufficient to create a strong bond among individuals. Additional interventions such as expert presentations, guided discussions, mindful meditation, and resource sharing were embedded in the virtual village, enhancing the sense of empowerment and facilitating friendships that extended beyond the virtual realm.

The study included 24 participants from the Coachella Valley area, Los Angeles metro area, and Tampa Bay region.

Brandon Brown, a professor of social medicine, population, and public health in the School of Medicine, stressed the vulnerability of older people living with HIV, who are at higher risk of experiencing severe COVID-19 symptoms due to age and compromised immune systems. The pandemic has further exacerbated their psychological well-being, emphasizing the need for innovative approaches to connect and improve their quality of life.

Virtual villages have gained popularity over the past decade, thanks to increased internet accessibility through mobile and other devices. While the research team focused on HIV for this particular virtual village project, the process of co-creating a virtual community can be replicated for various health or social topics. As long as there is a shared identity and evidence of community cohesion, virtual villages can effectively bring people together, supplementing or even facilitating in-person activities.

The study involved collaboration with researchers from UC Merced, UC San Diego, University of South Florida, Northeastern University in Massachusetts, and the HIV + Aging Research Project in Palm Springs, California. The research was supported in part by a grant from Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp and the National Institutes of Health.

The findings of this pilot phase offer valuable insights into the needs of aging individuals with HIV during the global pandemic and pave the way for expanding networks and fostering connections on a broader scale. By leveraging virtual villages, researchers hope to improve the quality of life and overall well-being of vulnerable populations, ensuring that no one feels isolated or forgotten.

View the full paper here.

This story was written with contributions from Iqbal Pittalwala, Senior Public Information Officer for University Relations at the University of California-Riverside.

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